Star Labs

A glimpse into the lives of front-line medics (read heroes) during the COVID-19 crisis. Sweta is a fresh out of college doctor working in a COVID-19 testing facility. She is caught in a tight situation between saving lives and saving even more lives. How will she do it all?

“So, I am still not allowed to enter” Sweta demanded, her tone had changed from pleading to that of an unsatisfied credit card customer in the past hour. “Even after working for eleven days here” she continued with her eyes fixed at the glass partition.

On the other side of the glass partition stood Dr. Jitendra Agarwal, MD Pathology. He was checking the topmost part of the zip in his PPE. Realising he can no longer ignore his newly appointed lab specialist; lest Sweta might actually break the barrier, he turned his head sideways. He let out a do-I-have-to-do-this sigh, and looked at the eager agitated 24 year old. “Yes. You have to” he said “because you are as incompetent as I had found you 11 days ago. And this is a serious section. I don’t want all these swabs to be contaminated with your nonsense. ”

Sweta turned around; she knew that it was a waste of breath to argue with such an insolent slimy git, Dr. Agarwal. He despised her as much as she despised him.

Sweta walked towards her desk. She had seven more sputum samples to prepare for culture. She sat down and started preparing small petridish with culture media for bacterial growth.

Sweta, as already Dr. J Agarwal had remarked to himself earlier, was 24 yrs old. She had just completed her MBBS and was preparing for NEET, AIIMS entrances for procuring a seat in post graduation. She lived alone here in Kolkata, for the last 6yrs. Her Ma and Papa were surgeons, living all the way in Ghatshila.

With her parents recommendation (or ‘catch’ as her batch mates termed) she managed to procure a lucrative position as a part time anaesthesia house-staff in Star hospital, at EM Bypass Road. Her duties were light, a total of 60 hours per month. She had a delightful acquaintance with Dr Bihani uncle, who had assured that a week’s work per month would be enough. She can then spend the rest 3 weeks studying. A perfect win-win situation.

Then calamity struck, COVID-19 outbreak. By the end of March 2020, the whole country went into lockdown. The health industry was completely haywire, no one knowing what to do, every new protocol arriving every day every hour. Star hospital was declared a private COVID analysis centre and specialist hospital. The whole system turned up-side down. Everyone had to work for odd hours every day. It was not unusual when everyone forgot that a new part time house-staff was to join the anaesthesia department in April.

Sweta’s Ma and Papa tried to convince her to come back home and not get entangled in the pandemic front-liner duties. They were doing their part in Ghatshila. But she, they had insisted, was not even a MD, just fresh from studies, without even a stamp and a letter-head of her own. She is well off without being involved and must simply concentrate on studies.

But Sweta was young and like all young ladies disliked the prospect of finding reason and logic in their parent’s advices. She reasoned over video-call that moving back would mean packing which was too much work. She is brave and will definitely stay to become a front-liner in the pandemic.

She used her ‘catch’ and contacted Bihani uncle again. He said the anaesthesia department has been disintegrated to attend COVID patients. But he promised he would inform her if he finds any opening for her.

He kept his promise but not exactly as Sweta would have preferred. He must have  been influenced by his friends, viz. Sweta’s parents. Because he secured a job for Sweta not as a doctor but as a lab analyst. A mere desk-job, away from all the excitement of treating patients in a pandemic, in an international crisis. Away from a once-in-lifetime-opportunity.

Sweta realised the power of her ‘catch’ and was depressed, frustrated and morose. Little did she know, there was someone even more frustrated at this appointment – Dr J Agarwal

Dr J Agarwal, MD Pathology, a man of rules and guidelines. By just staring at his face, his black hair and his lazy stubble along his lips and jaws, one might consider him likeable and in extreme cases – handsome. Until he speaks. As all men of 29 should, he held an iron fist of control and disliked absolutely everything. Everything apart from dogs, according to young nurse Rohini Sen, she had observed him using a dog themed mobile back cover.

Ever since the pandemic situation gripped Star Hospital, he was happy. His boss Dr Susmit Joshi, a senior expert in RT-PCR, was assigned to lab examination duties by ICMR. He had to go out and check all the labs throughout the country. He left Agarwal in charge and he absolutely rejoiced his power and importance. His euphoria ended suddenly when two of his lab technicians became secondary contacts and had to go to isolation. Agarwal was now compelled to ask for new recruits and to his dismay arrived – Sweta Srivastav.

“I have brought a notice for Dr J” Rohini held up a piece of paper. Sweta looked over her shoulder, on the other side of the partition a white encapsulated alien was still working on RT-PCR of COVID sputum sample.  She took the notice and said, “Thanks. I will inform Dr J, your Dr J” Rohini blushed and scurried hurriedly through the door. Sweta smiled.

Really, Sweta never found out why simple girls like Rohini liked perfect bastards like J. Who was she to complain, some people even liked ridiculous things like elaichi in biriyani. Either way she couldn’t possibly leave early, that punctuality freak J would use that to crucify her. She was worried about the 30 year old pregnant patient who was admitted yesterday evening. Rohini had informed her that she had fever and yet her delivery was due soon. It was risky. Sweta hoped to go check her before she left. There was no way Almighty J would ever allow her slack even for 5 minutes.

The door of micro-bacterial lab slid back and the white alien entered from the other-side, the covid testing room. The alien now had human-like face and wore instead of PPE, just a lab coat with ‘STAR’ embroidered on the chest pocket. “Rohini left a notice for you” Sweta informed. Dr J took the notice from her out-stretched hand. He looked at her desk, at the petri-dishes, the inoculums, the culture media. He searched but found no petty issue to scowl upon, he sighed and walked away to his own desk.

He sat down at his desk and read the notice. His eyes widened. He re-read the notice. He narrowed his eyes and sat up straight. He took out a piece of paper from the lowest drawer and scribbled on it. He stood up and paced steadily towards Sweta. “The ICMR is going to examine this lab tomorrow” he said. His anxiety and tension now reflected upon his sub-ordinate’s face too. She too stood up from her chair. “Here is the list of checks, they would definitely do” he paused to see if his listener has grasped the gravity of the situation. She nodded. He continued, “Though you are hardly competent enough nor are you educated enough to understand the importance of this task. But I believe the fear of losing your job would be sufficient motivation for you to make sure all things are in perfect order to at least pass these checks.” Sweta felt heat boiling inside her, she silently nodded again.

“Ok. Then I will be going through the results and reports of the cultures that were to mature today.” He strode off back to his desk with an air of satisfaction and command.

Sweta sat down. All this work would mean she had no chance of an early leave; she might even have to stay late. Well it can’t be helped, extra hours with this J would make her nauseated and anaemic. But to save the lab and hospital she must make that sacrifice.

Just as she had anticipated, it was well past nine, before she could satisfactorily declare ‘all work completed’. Normally, being stuck in such a poisonous lab would definitely take a toll on her health, make her faint. But she survived due to fortunate periodic interruptions by Rohini. She updated her about patient 723. Sweta could not somehow un-see that pregnant woman. She suspected that she had acquired Covid and this might complicate her delivery. She might go in labour either too early or too late. Both might lead to fatality for mother and child. She was in ob-gyane ward, not isolated, this might pose a threat to other patients. Many of the house-staff and nurses shared her suspicion, but according to the present guidelines, fever must persist to send a sample for RT-PCR. If only insolent J would allow her to go collect a sample and test it without putting a barcode record tab. He didn’t even allow her to cross the barrier let alone let her collect a sample. Far worse ‘no-barcode’ would mean death to the rules-freak. Shoot! It’s frustrating!

“Believe me, no one is as frustrated as I am” Dr J scowled behind her. Sweta realised she must have mumbled the last words aloud. She turned her head and pointed towards the computer, “I have finished these” she said. “May I leave now?” she asked while handing over some files. Dr J took the files, with an exasperated expression. Sweta knew such an expression persisted as long as she was in the vicinity. So, she chose to ignore and started collecting her scattered possessions from her desk, preparing to leave. Dr J realised his expression has not conveyed enough, he, on the other hand, chose to speak instead of ignorance. “I always knew I should be terrified of you. You can do absolutely anything, you might even blow the whole lab in minutes. Or worse you might contaminate the samples” he was angry. Ah-yes- literally angry. He did not try and mask it. “And now you have fulfilled my worst fear” he continued, slowly, punctuating every word, emphasising on their depth and gravity. “You prepared the culture media of this sample yesterday evening. Am I right?” he held out a petridish.

Sweta’s heart fluttered she agreed softly – “yes”

“You see this blue patch with letters ‘SLT’ ” he turned the petridish.

Sweta simply blinked silently in agreement.

“So it’s not eye defect, that made you forget the antibiotic. But pure carelessness. After 11 days of experience if you can’t interpret ‘SLT’ as ‘sensitivity test’ there is no use of you staying in this position. Do you realise how serious this mistake is? How costly it is?”

Sweta felt tears filling her eyes, she pulled all her strength to stand. She knew exactly  how grave and serious this mistake can be.

“This sample is from Patient 433, a 60 year old man admitted here. There is a high chance, he has caught hospital acquired UTI. He needs correct antibiotics, without delay. For that we need to check the E coli strand for specific antibiotics resistance. Now, I have to recollect the sample and incubate the culture for another 48hrs. Meanwhile his sufferings extends for two more days.”

Sweta was at the verge of tears, she weakly fumbled “sorry” and left as quickly as her trembling disobedient feet could take her.

Yesterday, ever since she saw that pregnant woman she had felt uneasy. She reminded her of a distant cousin, she’s also pregnant. She had been so pre-occupied with Patient 723, now she had caused a fatal error for 433. She absolutely deserved all that Dr J had accused her off.

Sweta’s PG rooms were just 10 min walk from the hospital. She unlocked the door and entered. She didn’t bother to switch on the lights. She went towards her bed and tried to look towards the street lamp through the window. She only saw her reflection on the glass. Warm tears all over her face. She felt disgrace and regretted looking at herself.

She sobbed quietly. With her tearful eyes she texted Rohini, “Ek bar PT 433 ko check karna” She dropped her phone beside her and sat frozen, hugging her folded legs in darkness. She was filled with a strange heat eating herself internally.

Ping! Rohini replied, “He died”

She didn’t deserve to call herself a doctor, she didn’t deserve the MBBS degree. She didn’t deserve this life. Why should she live after this –

Ping! Ping! Ping! Her phone notified incoming text with pi-pi-pi- continuously.

Must be Rohini.

Sweta ignored the sound. How could she exist after this – how could she breathe – her head swirled and she couldn’t think about anything.

She felt she might fall –

Lalala-la –la-la Fur Elise played on her phone.

Rohini was calling.

Sweta mechanically swiped the green button and held the phone near her right ear.

“Your patient 723. She’s having sudden contractions, she has dilated almost 10cm. It’s an emergency. I am alone here. No one will come. They think she’s infected. Oh – I am so tensed – please please – jaldi– come. I am taking her to the delivery room –  ”

The call disconnected.

Sweta looked about herself in darkness, with blank tearful eyes. She picked up her keys, her phone and darted out.

She rushed to the storage section and took a set of scrub and PPE from the nurse in charge. She put on the scrub and pushed open the door of the Donning room. A white alien Dr. J had evidently just completed donning. He was pulling the zip of his PPE when he turned to see who had just entered. He saw Sweta and paused. Even through the heavy protective eye googles, Sweta saw his pupils become wide with surprise. “What the hell are you doing here?” he exclaimed.

“I want to help Rohini, she – ” she replied while putting one leg into her PPE.

“Are you Crazy, Insane, You Know she’s Infected!” he grabbed her left hand.

Probably infected, and that is why I am wearing PPE and perform that delivery waterproof” she tried to shake his hand off.

“I checked her sample – she is infected”

“You checked without a tag?” Sweta stopped her attempts to free herself.

“Yes” continued J slightly taken aback at this sudden exposure, “Only because, because – you rambled about it all day with Rohini – ”he paused, flushed.

Sweta took this opportunity and shook herself free and started affixing the chain. “Wait stop” J resumed his attempt and grabbed her right hand.

“I am going – Just. Let. Go.”

“No, I won’t. I didn’t maintain all that barrier for 11 days just for nothing. You just can’t go expose yourself. It’s stupid bravery.”

“What? Wait – You wanted to protect me and that’s why you stopped from handling Covid samples. Not because I was incompetent

“I – I – ” J stammered but didn’t loosen his grip.

White encapsulated Rohini entered, “Dr J, Sweta, she’s –” she screamed. J and Sweta looked at Rohini then at each other and decided an emergency was an emergency. Sweta donned, J clasped extra tapes across her narrow wrist to secure the gloves. They rushed behind Rohini.

They returned to the changing room in the wee hours of the morning, around 4 o-clock. They were drenched in amniotic fluid outside PPE and in sweat inside PPE. Rohini had gone to take the mother and her new born son to her bed. J started to silently assist Sweta doff. She felt chills run through her body. Her scrub was completely wet with sweat.

“I believe, I owe you an apology and an explanation” Dr J said while tearing off the tight tapes he had wrung around Sweta’s wrist. Sweta made a soft agreeable sound but the PPEs prevented it from reaching J’s ears. He continued, “3 years back I was treating TB patients during MD. I was sort of like you, ignorant of rules and regulations. I must have been careless and reckless. I contacted TB and so did my roommate.

“He was preparing for USMLE, that was his 2nd yr, he had cleared level 1 a year back and was about to take level 2 exam. Unfortunately, he got bed-ridden and missed his exam. He lost two whole years and had to start over from level 1 of USMLE. He never mentioned anything to me, but I knew the truth and regretted it always.”

“You didn’t want another case of self-blame, in case I contacted Covid right before NEET. That’s why you called me incompetent and what not and bullied me – ” Sweta was not prepared to forgive the trauma easily.

“I know I had been a d –  ” he bit his tongue and corrected himself “not a good guy, but I thought if you disliked me and the lab, maybe then you will leave – ”

“Fortunately I did make a serious error and gave you opportunity to sack me” Sweta’s tone was bitter, but not all bitter bitter.

“Actually, that – I wanted to, ummm – apologise for that – I knew that man had already died this, rather yesterday morning,” he said as he checked the date on his phone. “He was shifted to ventilator in last minutes died of multiple septisemia, much before the culture could be ready – ”

“What the – ” Sweta exclaimed. “I almost thought of killing myself – ” she  looked for non-fragile things to throw, found her I card and threw it at alien J. He caught it, mid-air.

“You were right – You should be terrified of me. I could really kill you –” a pen swirled towards J, he ducked it just in last moment.

“I am terrified” he said, cautiously approaching his attacker. He proceeded with both his hand in mid-air, almost like police approaching criminals with hostages in Hollywood action thrillers.

He ducked sideways as another pen flew past his left ear. “You know, what really helps me when I am terrified. A good meal, bit of chicken and hot coffee. I say – we be terrified – together”

Sweta froze with another pen in her out-stretched hand, ready to blast off. She looked at the face smiling at /in front of her she saw his black hair, black eyes and unclean lazy stubble. She slowly lowered her hand and smiled back.

Star labs saw two births that morning.

Abhranila Das

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